"What we've got here is failure to communicate" – Strother Martin (as the Captain in “Cool Hand Luke”)
Thanks to technology, we have more ways to communicate than ever before. Then why do we still have a problem getting our message across?
The most common problem is choosing the right medium for your message. Instead of capitalizing on technology’s ability to foster closer relationships, people are using technology to distance themselves from others: leaving voicemails instead of having a conversation; sending broadcast emails instead of holding a meeting; or posting a notice on a website instead of distributing the information to everyone concerned. Are you using the wrong medium for your messages?
The reason most people use the wrong medium is to avoid conflict. They don’t want to get into a long discussion, so they leave a voicemail when they know someone won’t be in the office. They don’t want a debate, so they send a broadcast email. A notice may cause dissension, so it’s posted on the company’s intranet, but no one’s told where to find the information.
In reality, these choices lead to even greater conflict. The recipient thinks that the sender is ducking the issue. And because the issue isn’t resolved quickly, there’s more time for frustration and distrust to build.
Before sending your next message, consider the potential outcomes. If there’s the possibility of confusion, then talk face to face. If there’s the possibility of conflict, then talk face to face. If there’s the need for immediate feedback, then talk face to face. If there’s the need for collaboration, then hold a meeting (where people can talk face to face). If distance prevents face-to-face meetings, then schedule a conference call.
Voicemail, email and the Web are excellent tools for sharing information quickly. However, these tools shouldn’t be used to resolve issues. Resolution can only be accomplished by talking directly with those involved.
Don’t use voicemail to level charges or express anger. Take the time to discuss any issues in person. If you decide to leave a voicemail, remember that the recipient may not be listening to the message at their desk. Speak clearly, and leave a phone number and time when you can be reached. Repeat the number, so they can write it down. Don’t assume that they have immediate access to your number or have your phone number memorized.
With email, remember to be polite. People often forget that writing in all caps means you’re shouting (not only that, it’s hard to read). Don’t use multiple fonts or colors, as many email programs only output as straight text. If you need to emphasize text, bold it. If the email is printed out, your bold text will still be visible. Always include a clear description in the email subject line. In a world where people receive hundreds of messages a day, this is an easy way for the recipient to understand the importance of your message. Blank subject lines, or subject lines such as “FYI” will not help you or the recipient refer to your message at a later date.
Reply to emails promptly. And use “Reply to All” judiciously. Does everyone who received the original email need to see your response? To keep your inbox “clean”, store messages by using the “Folders” option in your email program. You don’t allow paper mail to overflow your inbox, do you? (If you answered yes, then that’s another blog for another time.)
To reduce travel expenses, many companies have expanded the use of teleconferencing, videoconferencing and Web conferencing. Again, politeness is essential to success. Give the call your full attention, and act as if everyone is in the room with you. This isn’t the time to catch up on your emails or surf the Web. Allow others to finish their thoughts before jumping into the conversation. And if one person has been silent too long, check to make sure that they’re still on the line. Appoint someone to follow up with a brief email documenting major points and any assignments made during the meeting.
For any meeting, virtual or otherwise, always set and publish an agenda ahead of time. When the discussion strays too far from the agenda, politely return the focus to the issue at hand. Ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate. Remember that many people are uncomfortable in groups, or may be intimidated about expressing their opinions in front of a senior person. Draw them into the conversation by asking direct and open-ended questions.
Regardless of the type of communication—email, voicemail, teleconference or meeting—remember to be polite. Everyone loves the sound of their own voice, so make sure that everyone is allowed to be heard. Listen attentively, especially if someone’s opinion conflicts with your own. Learn to disagree without being disagreeable. Criticize the idea without criticizing the person who expressed it.
The way you communicate is as important as the idea you’re trying to express. Technology is great for information sharing. Personal communication is best for issue resolution. Make sure you choose the right medium for your message.